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Modes of production and minke whaling: The case of Iceland
by Gísli Pálsson
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Modes Of Production
  We may well argue, on the other hand, that the kinds of social relations in which humans are involved when appropriating natural resources differ from one society to another. And this brings me to modes of production. The kinds of attributes one adopts as criteria of classification of modes of production and subsistence depend on the theory informing the analysis. However, reasoned anthropological comparison and informed environmental decision-making necessitate both that the units of comparison be established on some logical basis and that they be critically examined and refined from time to time. Everyday classifications, as Hewes remarked year ago (Hewes 1948:238), need to be critically examined and refined every now and then, if only 'to reassure their users that they are more than accidental classifications, and are valid rubrics beyond our own language or culture'. One of the significant social differences in fishing systems concerns the nature of production units, their organisation, and the motives of the producers. A distinction can be made between household producers, capitalistic firms, and simple commodity producers.
  In household economies, the 'domestic mode of production' (Sahlins 1972), production is motivated by the subsistence needs of the domestic unit. The household unit is never a completely self-sufficient one, but given the emphasis on use values and livelihood, production is set low and, consequently, resources are often under-used. Summing up the evidence in relation to hunter-gatherers, Barnard and Woodburn argue that the theory has stood up well to ethnographic research, emphasising that it is not wants that are set low but production targets (1988:12). The theory of the domestic mode of production was developed by Chayanov in relation to peasant economies. Chayanov's theory predicts that there is a 'natural' limit to peasant production in that the intensity of labour is proportional to the total needs of the household, including the ratio of consumers to workers, taxes, and debts. Some economic anthropologists have made use of Chyanov's theory in relation to fishing (see, for example, Jorion 1984).
  In the second kind of production system mentioned, in capitalist production, production is motivated by the accumulation of profit and capital, and production targets are indefinite. In this case, fishing crews are unlikely to be organized on the basis of kinship and friendship. What matters, from the point of view of the producer, are abstract exchange values, not concrete goods or use values. The capitalist firm is, therefore, usually very responsive to changes in the relative profitability of fishing and processing. If the profitability of a particular fishery goes down, the company is likely to transfer some of its capital to another fishery, to processing facilities, or some other enterprise.
  There are some grounds for arguing that nowadays, and for much of recent history, there is only one mode of production, the capitalist one. Practically all production is somehow involved in the world capitalist economy. Some production systems, however, can neither be described as peasant households nor as capitalist firms. In the anthropological literature they are often referred to as 'simple commodity production'. McCay summarizes their characteristics as follows (1981: 2-3):
  Their systems of production are based on relatively small-scale, simple technology; work groups organized around kinship, friendship, or temporary collegiality but with little difference between owners and laborers; widespread sharing of costs, risks, benefits, and windfalls; and a variable subsistence/market allocation of production.
  Such systems have often been associated with agriculture (see Cook 1982), but they can also be found in whale hunting (Cassell 1988) and fishing (McCay 1981, Russell and Poopetch 1990). The simple commodity producer shares the characteristics of the fishing peasant in one important respect. In both cases family members pool their resources, capital and labour. By pooling available resources the producer safeguards himself against the vulnerability of the business. Market conditions fluctuate, the productivity of fishing differs from one season to another, and the need for labour varies with season and fishing gear. One of the barriers to converting a small family business into a company is precisely the difficulty in responding to such fluctuations, while at the same time responding to the demands of the labour market. Skippers who own boats do not have to pay salaries every week. The absentee-owner, in contrast, must conform to the formal demands of labour unions for immediate payments in order to keep his workers. The extent to which the simple commodity producer is able to draw upon the labour of his family, however, varies with its composition and stage in the development cycle. The skipper-owners who are the most vulnerable are those who have no sons or whose sons are too young to join them.
  Simple commodity production, then, is highly adaptive in times of financial difficulties. For the individual producer, it is enough to survive the year and hope for better luck next year. Many skipper-owners form share-holding companies, together with family members, in order to prevent total loss of property in case of bankruptcy. Unlike absentee owners, the capitalists, skipper-owners continue to invest when fishing ceases to be profitable, but unlike peasant fishermen they do accumulate capital when it is possible to increase returns. Such differences in organisation are likely to correlate with differences in perception of environmental problems. Although the contrast is by no means a stark one, the skipper-owners are more likely than the absentee owners to define environmental conditions as problematic and to take direct collective action to redress the balance.
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Modes of production and minke whaling: The case of Iceland, by Gísli Pálsson.
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